Anyone who has followed my fiction will know there are two things that fascinate me: archaeology, and textiles. A recent article (14 July 2016) in UK’s Independent newspaper by their archaeology correspondent, David Keys, snared me on both.
Circa 3000 years ago, in the Bronze Age, a settlement, its houses built upon stilts in a riverside setting amid the marshes of Cambridgeshire, was attacked, burnt and destroyed. Its inhabitants fled, leaving all behind them. It would have been lost to us, but as the houses collapsed into the water the charred remains became waterlogged. And that is the perfect environment to ensure preservation. It is now being excavated (at Whittlesea). And what the archaeologists are finding is incredible.
Never mind the exotic jewellery of blue, black, yellow and green glass beads from the eastern Mediterranean. Nor the 50-plus bronze axes, sickles, spears, swords, razors, hammers, tweezers and awls that have been found. Nor the 60 or so wooden buckets, platters and troughs, the ceramic bowls, mugs and storage jars—‘the largest collection of complete bronze, wooden and ceramic artefacts ever found in a British Bronze Age settlement’. No, it’s the textiles that interest me—found as ‘neatly folded garments hung on the exceptionally well-made wooden furniture’.
Over 100 fragments of textile, processed fibre and textile yarn have been found—so far! Some of these are, say the report, ‘of superfine quality, with some threads just 1/10 of a millimetre in diameter and some fabrics with 28 threads per centimetre, fine even by modern standards.’ Some of these fabrics had been folded—some in up to 10 layers. That’s not possible with small pieces; therefore these must have been quite large e.g. capes, cloaks, or drapes, potentially up to 3 metres square.
This is most likely the kind of loom these Bronze Age weavers would have used.
Most of the finds were of linen; the most versatile of fabrics capable of producing a luxurious gauze, soft for veils and undergarments—as was used in the Middle Ages—yet coarse and strong enough to make sails. But these weavers also processed a ‘non-stinging subspecies’ of nettle which grew locally (the fen nettle). This nettle-fibre produces a particularly fine and silky fabric—not to mention its magical qualities (in the European folktale of the Wild Swans, shirts made of nettle yarn were used to break a witch’s spell).
But so far the excavation has revealed no coloured dyes. Undyed linen is a mid-brown colour. But soaked in stale urine and dried in the sun, it then would be bleached sufficiently light to take a plant dye. Or it could have been treated in like manner to the linen support for the Bayeux Tapestry: boiled in a solution of water with the alkalising addition of ash from wood, fern or seaweed, then, again, spread in the sun to dry and complete the bleaching.
Locally available plant dyes—madder, woad and weld—would yield a wide range of colours. The Bayeux Tapestry has ten main tones: two reds, a yellow, a beige, a blue-black, navy and mid-blue, olive green, sage green and laurel. Yet these came from just three plants: Weld (Reseda luteola) whose flowers and leaves provide beige and yellow; Woad (Isatis tinctoria which apart from the blues, when mixed with weld will produce green; and Madder (Rubia tinctoria) which gives a range of reds.
Such a magnificent find. Reading of that has set my fingers itching and toes curling!